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Nailed to the Wall
Ohio uncappers face legal nightmare
by Karl Bode 06:31PM Thursday Nov 21 2002
Ohio police this past summer shocked broadband users nationwide by engaging in an unprecedented and frighteningly severe crackdown of area customers who had uncapped their cable modems. In conjunction with the FBI, 17 Buckeye cable users were served warrants, seven of whom had their possessions taken, face fifth-degree felony charges (punishable by up to one year in prison), and have had their lives changed forever.

For the record, uncapping ( hacking your modem in order to gain access to untapped bandwidth) is not legal. Those who perform the practice can expect retaliation from their broadband provider, and should expect serious repercussions for doing so. That said, one Ohio ISP has taken punishment for the practice to an unprecedented level that should raise the eyebrows of providers, customers, and concerned citizens alike.

The Block family is the Rupert Murdoch of Toledo, Ohio. The company controls several major area newspapers (including The Toledo Blade), one of the area's television stations (TV5 Toledo), a dial up provider, Buckeye Cable, and much more. As such, their control over the political system in the area is considerable, a fact that may under-ride the horrifying journey several individuals are taking through the area's legal gauntlet because they uncapped their cable modems.

Paul Shryock, vice president of information technology at Buckeye Cablesystem, discovered that twenty three of his subscribers were getting more juice from their connections than they paid for. According to an interview in a recent Cable World article, Shyrock noted that one subscriber had "altered his modem to handle 100 megabits per second, up and downstream", though the company could never realistically even obtain such speeds.

Shryock also confirmed the company wasn't sure how customers were getting the extra speed. "We don't fully understand how they're pulling this off just yet, but we're learning more every day."

While the methods Shryock used to discover the offenders who weren't going download crazy is somewhat of a mystery, a greater mystery is how Shyrock came up with the cost impact numbers he would later use to nail subscribers to the wall with the help of the FBI.

The FBI's computer crime department needs computer offenses to total over 250,000 dollars before they'll get involved in local crimes. Conveniently for Buckeye cable, Shryock "guesstimated" that the 23 total offenders contributed to more than that amount in bandwidth theft, nearly eleven thousand dollars worth of bandwidth theft per offender.

Instead of disconnecting service for uncapping (as is the case with nearly every provider in the U.S.) Buckeye Cablesystem decided to get the FBI involved. Of the 23 who were to be served search warrants, 17 actually received visits from the FBI and local law enforcement. Seven actually found themselves indicted by the local grand jury and currently face fifth degree felony charges.

One of several defendants we spoke to places his estimated lost income and hardware at over half a million dollars. Brandon Wirtz, who operates more than one business out of his home, was on the verge of releasing a Smartcard based DRM solution for Windows Media Player to several different companies before his life was turned upside-down. Wirtz is a respected young writer, consultant and tech wiz in the industry, and In April will be Awarded a Microsoft MVP award for his involvement in the Windows Media Community.

Thanks to local construction, Wirtz, who never signed a contract with Buckeye, claims his broadband connection was incapable of achieving speeds higher than 128kbps down. By utilizing a Cisco configuration file, he uncapped his Motorola Surfboard modem to 2.5MBps, for what he estimates was no more than a total of 16 hours, and only when he needed to move large files. The worst that could happen to him, he figured, was that his ISP got angry and disconnected his service. He couldn't have been more wrong.

It wasn't long before twelve plain-clothed officers greeted Wirtz at his front door with a search warrant and a smile, coyly asking "Is there anything interesting about your cable?" The officers wound up taking every computer in the house, ironically excluding the PC in his living room that actually installed the uncapping software. Wirtz and his roommate lost at least 8 PC's total, even those who were behind firewalls and incapable of benefitting from the uncapped modem. Law enforcement confiscated all of the hardware from the companies Wirtz built, which contained his work, client contacts, and a book he had written.

Wirtz even lost his VCR in the deal, and Sylvania Township police debated confiscating his Xbox gaming console, but decided to leave it behind. The officers confiscated his legitimate CD copies of Windows Office and several operating systems, all of his burned CD's, and a security card writing machine instead.

Wirtz and several others now face a December 13 court date to determine if they qualify for "diversions", a twelve step program for non-sexual criminal offenders. If Wirtz passes a series of background and substance abuse checks, he may be qualified to pay $3400 in fines and have his record wiped clean if he attends the program. His possessions, client contact information and computers may never be returned, and Wirtz finds himself in a serious financial hole thanks to frightened clients and mounting legal fees, though he's yet to give up on broadband. He's now a happy Wi-Fi customer.

John Weglian, chief of the special units division of the prosecutor’s office, offers no apologies for Buckeye's unusually harsh treatment of the uncappers. "Cyber crime is potentially very damaging to society. We are taking a firm position on that type of criminal activity. We hope these cases will have a deterrent value, given the cost factors for the defendants in successful prosecutions."

But not everyone in the region agrees that the case is entirely about bandwidth theft.

George Runner, among those indicted by the grand jury, has had a long history of disagreement with area officials, the Block family included. Runner, a former Lucas County assistant prosecutor, left the area after being accused of stealing county supplies, an act which was caught on videotape by a hidden camera.

That camera, which was illegally placed, forced the resignation of village police chief Lance Martin, and added fuel to the fire of disagreement between Runner and regional officials. According to area locals, the Block family patriarch Paul Block had always disliked George Runner, who the Blocks claimed was overly secretive of details in cases he was prosecuting for the county.

Runner will most likely not be offered the chance to attend the diversions program, and was one of the only offenders forced through booking (mugshots, fingerprints). While it's pure speculation to link Runner's legal problems with his area disagreements, it's something that begs asking. Calls to Runner's attorney's office for comment were not returned by press time.

When the Block family first came to Toledo, Paul Block was rumored to have said he was going to "rip down Toledo and rebuild it in his image". The behavior of Buckeye Cablesystem has many wondering exactly what kind of image he had in mind.

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Cincinnati, OH

2 recommendations

reply to cmd82

Re: UNcappers

I feel no sympathy. In this day and age, people think because things are easy and 'harmless' that they have the right to do it. CD-Burning, file sharing, modem uncapping... it's all harmless, we should all have the right to do it...

That is, people feel that way until whatever is being violated belongs to you. When it's your song, software, templates, or inventions being stolen, copied, and abused your viewpoint changes. File sharing is great until you're the one who invented a new utility and everyone is just giving it away on Kazaa. The work you spent 6 months on, the work you feel you should be getting paid for.

As far as the punishment fitting the crime, I think relatively few people are truly grasping what the crime is or the seriousness of it.

Are any of the people who believe the crack down was wrong aware of human nature? People stop doing things when they stop getting away with it. If no one stops someone from uncapping their modem, they do it. If they cut off the service, they just switch services and uncap their new service. If people can pirate software illegally, they will. And they don't stop perpetrating intellectual property theft until someone makes an example of them. If all they get is a slap on the wrist, they snicker and steal with the other hand.

It's like the Xbox hackers. The mess up their own systems, then get mad that they can't use the Xbox Live service, but do they stop there at the slap of the wrist? No, they start stealing other people's serial numbers, and then blame the company because they're "forced to steal".

I have no sympathy for these thieves. They are opportunistic vultures. They uncapped their modems because it was convenient for themselves and because they thought they could get away with it. They didn't consider for a second how their neighbor's service might be affected, and even if they knew for a fact their neighbors service was going to be cut in half, they would do it anyway if they could get away with it.

What I don't understand, is how so many people can be so quick to defend them. They're not victims. That's like calling a mugger the victim when he sprains his ankle running away. The car thief is a victim when the breaks don't work and he crashes and ends up crippled. They knew there could be consequences, their ignorance as to precisely what the consequences would be is irrelevant.

If uncapping their modem meant completely disabling your service, do you think they'd say "Well that's just going too far." and not do it? No, they wouldn't. They'd do it just the same with no concern for you, me, or anyone else but themselves.

Those of us who are law-abiding and subject to the consequences of the theives' actions are the victims. Not only is it possible other paying customers had their bandwidth robbed from them, but we also paid taxes so the FBI could catch these people, we pay for their theft in increased service costs because the company needs more employees to monitor the network, because the company needs more technology to enforce bandwidth restrictions, and because the company needs to increase prices to make up for profit losses due to theft. The company will never take the hit, the other customers will, that's a fact of business.

We're the ones paying for all this, yet so many of you are willing to call THEM the victims. Every time you go to a web site and it's too slow, or you try to download a file but the server is too busy, think about the people out there with faster connections than they pay for stealing the bandwidth of the server. When your ISP charges go up next year, keep in mind you're now paying $3 extra for the profit losses due to the theft, and when you're writing that check, ask yourself who is the real victim.




2 recommendations

Uncapping a Cable modem is not Theft!

It isn't! its a tort. Or in other words a violation of civil law. This seems to be hard for some people to understand so I'll try and explain it as best I can. First of all altering a device in your home is not illegal. At least not in Canada. Also you cannot normally steal a service. For example you might say you can steal electricity which seems to be a service. But really what's the service? I believe its the providing the electricity to the home. What your really stealing is the electricity itself. You can't be accused of installing heavy gauge wires to steal more service. Obivously though this would be pointless as your meter would just record increased use. Altering the meter itself however would not be illegal, so long as you don't take more electricity than you pay for. But then that's the whoule point of altering it right?

The only way uncapping could be construed as stealing is if the ISP actually owned the packets, which they don't. They just send them through. Now while its true that ISPs may suffer substantial financial loss for being unable to quickly detect a breach of contract this does not make uncapping theft! What the ISP can do, is cancel the persons service, or even sue them for breach of contract and damages.

Another example would be if I hire a company to deliver 10 widgets per day to me. The company dosen't own the widgets, they are provided free of charge. What I'm paying for is simply the delivery of the widgets. Now to control how fast I get the widgets the company puts a machine in my house that tells the company at what rate I should recieve the widgets. I signed a contract with the company which stipulates that I will not alter the machine I'm renting from them. However, I decide to be evil and change the machine so it phones the company and tells them I should get 100 widgets a day. Now the company almost always believes what its machines tell it and so it dosen't realize that I'm in breach of contract. It incurs additional costs from sending me extra widgets. Eventually the company finds out and disscontinues my serivice. The company realizes it would be bad PR to sue one of its customers and instead elects to verify against its customer records how many widgets each customers should be getting per day whenever one of the widget rate monitoring machines phones in.

Well I hope that last one wasn't too confusing! So in summary the definition of theft is depriving an individual or entity of a physical object. Tricking a machine into telling a company that it should send more stuff to you faster is not theft, so long as you own what its sending. What it *might* come close to is fraud, but I don't believe it would, because you can't defraud a machine, and a machine can't defraud a person. What ISPs should be doing is trying to detect this sort of thing sooner and disconnect customers who flagrantly disregard their contract in this manner. The sooner they find out about it the less financial loss they incur. The root problem though is ISPs placing too much trust in electronic devices.


2 recommendations

reply to Hayward

Re: Well DIUHHH I an knowingly stealing

hayward why do you always have to be such a troll?

READ the news post, the information there points to a few very simple conclusions.

#1 The ISP knowingly misrepresented the economic damage to the FBI, defrauding the US government and using taxpayer resources to inflict intimidation and fear on consumers.

#2 A felony conviction carries a lot of weight in our society. Many many many crimes are not felonies. To charge a person with a felony for this is insane. At most these people did a few dozen dollars in damage each, not even enough to justify the expense of a civil suit. Of course WITHOUT PROVING ANYTHING, the ISP has ruined their lives.

#3 The ISP can and should be sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress. Lives have been irreparably damaged solely to enable one ISP to scare its customers into submission.

#4 The article did not mention that any specific law was broken, only that an allegation that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage was done, something which is highly suspect and remains unproven. Someone else already mentioned that existing laws do not specifically cover uncapping as a crime. It is possible that uncapping your own modem is not a crime at all, it should just be a breach of contract of your TOS.

#5 "Making examples" is not what this country is about. Making an example of someone is unfair and unconstitutional. You cannot inflate the punishment simply to make a point. The only fair way to 'make an example' of someone is to sue them, even if you know suing them will cost you more money than you'll win in a judgment. If you disagree with me, feel free to leave the US and settle down in a nice communist country like China where 'examples' are made all the time.

I could post more but Im sick of this.... given the content of this article, anyone who comes out on the side of the ISP is either a troll or retarded.